The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Where do family trees come from?

Why is a tree coming out of this dozing man’s belly, you may ask. When I began working on the Folger’s next exhibition, Symbols of honor: Family history and genealogy in Shakespeare’s England (July 1 to October 26, 2014), I wondered the same thing.

Trevelyon Miscellany, Folger MS V.b.232, fol. 57r.
Trevelyon Miscellany (1608), Folger MS V.b.232, fol. 57r: Jesse or Ysai, son of Obeth. Click on image to see full page.

This is Jesse. The text below this image includes a passage from Isaiah (11.1), which Christians interpret as prophetic: “the Virgin shall spring of the roote of Jesse But there shall come a rod forth of the stocke of Ishai, and a graffe shall growe out of his roote.” Jesse, father of King David, was the root from which the ancestors of Christ sprung. The next page in the Trevelyon Miscellany, part of a section on the kings of Israel and of Judah, shows Jesse’s son David, also with a branch springing forth from his body and a roundel with his son Nathan’s name in it. 

Folger MS V.b.232, fol. 57v: David, son of Jesse.
Folger MS V.b.232, fol. 57v: David, son of Jesse. Click on image to see full page.

The passage was first graphically depicted as early as the 11th century, usually with the names of Jesse’s descendants in the branches, and is known as the Jesse tree. In the later medieval period, the nobility adopted the tree as a symbol of lineage, and by the eighteenth century, family pedigrees were commonly referred to as “family trees,” although the foliage had disappeared and the “roots” appeared at the top rather than the base of the diagrams.

A stunning exception to the turn to foliage-free family trees is a fully-digitized manuscript at Penn (UPenn Ms. Codex 1070), which they are kindly lending us for the exhibition. “The Genelogies of the Erles of Lecestre and Chester,” created ca. 1572-73, shows the descent of the two lords from ancestors from the time of William the Conqueror.

UPenn MS Codex 1070, Genelogies of the Erles of Lecestre and Chester. England, ca. 1572-73.
UPenn MS Codex 1070, Genelogies of the Erles of Lecestre and Chester. England, ca. 1572-73.

The facing page to the above image explains how to interpret the leaves that wrap themselves around the roundels: “Note that the lynes and descentes come from those rondells in the Margent which be stayed by two leaues, and the other rondells that are stayde but by one leafe are the colaterall children.”

Most early modern family trees were not of the leafy variety. More typically, family trees ranged from disorderly, meandering, tendril-like messes, such as this one (Folger MS V.b.163), begun in the 1480s—

Folger MS V.b.163, caption
Folger MS V.b.163: William Jenings, Pedigrees of some noble families

—to trees that followed a tidy and clear grid-like pattern, such as this one (Folger MS V.b.52):

Folger MS V.b.52 finish caption
Folger MS V.b.52: Visitation of Warwickshire, 1619

The Folger will be showing many other genealogies in the exhibition this summer, and a search in Hamnet on the genre term “genealogies” will lead you to additional examples.

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